In general, swimming is an excellent form of low impact aerobic conditioning that is easy on the back and spine. Unlike running or many other forms of aerobic exercise, with swimming there is practically no impact on the spinal structures. The water supports the body, relieving stress on all joints including those of the spine.
For many people with osteoarthritis or other forms of joint pain or severe back pain, pool therapy and light swimming is part of the recommended therapy.
How Swimming Causes Back Pain or Neck Pain
- The lower back can remain hyper-extended during front strokes (the front crawl or breaststroke and butterfly) while swimming.
- The upper spine (neck) may be jerked backward repetitively during front strokes while taking breaths when swimming.
Preventing Back Pain from Swimming
- Use proper form for front strokes, such as the crawl or breaststroke, while swimming; keep body level in the water (hold lower abdominal muscles up and in) and keep the head straight rather than lifted.
- If preferable, swim with side or back strokes instead of front strokes.
- Roll the body to the side and keep the chin in when taking breaths during the crawl, rather than jerking the head backward, to reduce the amount of movement in the neck while swimming.
- Use a snorkel to eliminate the need to move the head for breaths.
- Wear goggles to reduce improper head movements when trying to keep water out of the eyes.
- Use flotation devices (noodles, boards, life preservers, wet vest) to maintain proper form when swimming.
If swimming causes or worsens an existing back or neck condition, consider physical therapy and/or changing to pool therapy.
With pool or water therapy, one still has the benefit of the water supporting the spine and other joints in the body, but without the possible adverse effects of repetitive motion of certain strokes. Simply walking from side to side in the pool in at least waist deep water may also be beneficial.
Your own physical condition and diagnosis may require specific modifications or precautions. Before undertaking any course of self-treatment you should consult a doctor or physiotherapist.